Reactor roadblock? Judge nuclear against wind and solar, panel says
NRC board agrees with foes of Calvert Cliffs project
Federal regulators agree with opponents of a proposed third reactor at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant that a draft report did not sufficiently consider alternative power sources, such as wind and solar, to the $10 billion, 1,600-megawatt project.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board released a report responding to a contention submitted in June by five environmental groups challenging UniStar Nuclear Energy's Lusby project. The board's three-judge panel acknowledged that the commission staff's draft environmental impact statement for the project requires more discussion of such alternatives to nuclear power, as mandated by the National Energy Policy Act.
The draft environmental impact statement's "discussion of a combination of alternatives is inadequate and faulty," the report states. "By selecting a single alternative that under-represents potential contributions of wind and solar power, the combination alternative depends excessively on the natural gas supplement, thus unnecessarily burdening this alternative with excessive environmental impacts."
The environmental groups that raised the concern include the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Beyond Nuclear, Public Citizen's Energy Program and Southern Maryland Citizens Alliance for Renewable Energy Solutions.
Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project for Beyond Nuclear, said he was thrilled the NRC licensing board agreed with opponents.
"If [the NRC and UniStar] want to go ahead with a new nuclear reactor and the risks that are associated with nuclear power, they simply needed to look at less harmful alternatives and they didn't do that," Gunter said. "They didn't even look at and evaluate the offshore potential for wind on the Maryland-Virginia coast. They looked down south and picked a spot in North Carolina; they deliberately looked at a less productive center for wind resources."
The National Energy Policy Act merely requires parties advocating for nuclear construction to examine "reasonable alternatives," Gunter said, "and they basically ignored the advent of a renewable energy renaissance, which in fact provides much cleaner, much safer and much less environmentally harmful electricity than nuclear power."
One expected source of wind energy that could be an alternative to the proposed nuclear reactor, he said, is a high-voltage, direct-current offshore transmission line. In October, Google said it would invest $5 billion in that line.
"It would interconnect a series of wind farms just offshore from Maryland and Virginia to Delaware," Gunter said. "Google has recognized that not only is wind technology feasible, but it is commercially viable enough for a billion-dollar investment. Eventually it will run up the Eastern Seaboard to Maine. There's a similar project up there where they're looking to put 5 gigawatts of offshore wind energy."
UniStar spokeswoman Laura Eifler said in an e-mail that the company plans to work with the NRC to address the issue.
"The contention filed had four issues associated with it and the [licensing board] rejected three of the four issues," Eifler said. "UniStar values the public participation process, and we look forward to assisting in the resolution of the remaining issue, to the satisfaction of the Board, for the NRC's Final Environmental Impact Statement."
The licensing board rejected other elements of the foes' collective argument. They had said that the environmental impact statement's analysis of the need for more electricity was inadequate and outdated, and that it understated the likely costs of nuclear power versus alternative sources.
The impact statement emphasized a need for the electricity the proposed reactor could generate. Opponents challenged the board's research, arguing electricity demand has dropped in Maryland due to legislative changes and the recession, and that the researchers should have included a broader geographic discussion in their analysis. Specifically, they argued that "Maryland is part of a regional power grid that includes 13 states, and as long as sufficient power is generated within the region to meet the needs of the participant states, Maryland has no need to produce more power within its borders."
However, the licensing board dismissed some of the project opponents' arguments as untimely. For those that did qualify as timely, the opponents did not submit "legally sufficient" documents or sources, the new report concludes.
Once the licensing board rules on all submitted contentions there are 10 so far, though some already have been dismissed UniStar, NRC staff and the environmental groups could appeal to the full commission, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said.
"If, after the commission ruled, the parties were still not satisfied with the outcome, they would have the option of challenging the ruling in federal court," he said.
The new contention will stand alongside a previous contention still being considered by the licensing board, Sheehan said. That previous contention alleges that granting a license for a third reactor would violate the Atomic Energy Act, which does not allow foreign entities to "own, dominate and control" a U.S. nuclear power plant. In a meeting last month, NRC staff met with members of the French utility company Eléctricité de France, now the sole owner of UniStar, to address the issue. At the meeting, the company made public its plans to acquire a U.S. partner.
"EDF said it would file a document with us next month, which will further explain its approach," Sheehan said. "Separate from that, though, the [licensing board] panel continues to review the foreign ownership question on its own."
In October, EDF bought out its partner in UniStar, Constellation Energy of Baltimore, for $140 million. Earlier that month, Constellation had balked at the Department of Energy's requirement that the company put up $880 million for a proposed $7.6 billion federal loan guarantee. The nuclear industry relies on such guarantees because private financing for new reactors is scarce.